LOCATION: San Francisco, California
In 2009, the current owner of the Fairmont Hotel – Maritz Wolff & Co. – announced plans to demolish The Tonga Room, as well as the entire rear half of the hotel, to make way for a new podium and high-rise tower. The project included a multi-level parking garage, new ballrooms, and 160 luxury condominiums, ranging in size from 1,700 to 7,500 square feet. In addition to adding to the glut of unsold luxury condominiums currently languishing on the market, this project would have destroyed The Tonga Room, one of America's best-preserved examples of a "High Tiki" style lounge. Perhaps rivaled only by Ft. Lauderdale's Mai Kai and San Diego's Bali Hai, The Tonga Room is one of the most ambitious Polynesian-themed lounges remaining in California, the state where the style was invented and where it continues to thrive.
In early 2009, Chris VerPlanck, Alice Carey, and Erica Schultz founded S.O.S. Tonga, a small ad hoc group united by the belief that destroying The Tonga Room for more luxury condos was a staggeringly bad idea. In addition to preparing an application to the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission to include The Tonga Room as part of the locally designated Fairmont Hotel, S.O.S. Tonga staged events at The Tonga Room and other Tiki bars throughout the Bay Area to gather support for its preservation. S.O.S. Tonga was frequently featured on the nightly news and our efforts caught the attention of the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, Preservation Magazine, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and innumerable blogs. By virtue of our hard work, as well as some good luck, S.O.S. Tonga was ultimately successful in saving the Tonga Room.
While researching the history of the Tonga Room, Chris VerPlanck became somewhat of an authority on the topic of "Polynesian Pop" in the United States. He has presented a paper on the topic titled: "From Trad'r Sam to Smuggler's Cove: The Rise, Fall, and Resurgence of Polynesian Pop and Tiki Culture in San Francisco, 1936-2010," once for San Francisco Architectural Heritage's Semi-Annual Meeting on January 19, 2010, and again for DoCoMoMoNoCA on May 9, 2011.
View the full Tonga Room case report. (Acrobat PDF)